June 10th, 2021
Few social values are more prominent in public discourse than freedom. In the United States and around the world, freedoms and rights are fixtures of the public consciousness, and this fixation with freedoms permeates every aspect of communal life. Chest-thumping activists crudely assert their monopoly over freedom, while their adversaries seek to control every aspect of everyone’s lives. Needless to say, this is absurd. Rather, individual freedoms need to be reigned in at times for the sake of other important values, like justice, equity, opportunity, and compassion. One who is fundamentally concerned with their freedoms and nothing else is as wicked as the Sodomites, according to the Rabbis, who state in Pirkei Avot that “One who says ‘[What is] mine is mine, and [what is] yours is yours” is…a Sodom-type of character.” Rather, the Sages promote those concerned with others, as they teach that “[One who says] ‘mine is yours and yours is yours’ is a pious person.” It would be fair to say that this worldview will be held by all in the Messianic Era, may it come swiftly in our days. Finally, they declare that “[One who says] ‘mine is mine and yours is mine’ is a wicked person.”
Far too often we find that those who claim to be the champions of freedom express the Sodomite worldview, that people should only be concerned with themselves. In practice, however, what they advocate for most often is the wicked worldview – that they can only retain their freedoms at the expense of others. This is how the idea of freedom is weaponized into systems of oppression against those most marginalized. Divine Wrath ignites from the letters of the Torah scroll at the mention of such systems, as it is written in the nineteenth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy: “Cursed is the one who subverts the rights of the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow.” Those three groups, foreigners, orphans, and widows are used regularly in the Torah to represent the most marginalized in society. Despite the narrative of liberation, freedom at any cost is antithetical to the Torah’s teachings.
The great twentieth century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “[Humanity]’s sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. Is it a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?… There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself.” Freedom is no excuse for injustice – religious consciousness is foundationally centered around justice and compassion, not freedom. The common misconception is that the Exodus narrative highlights the Torah’s concern with freedom – a crude interpretation. Rather, the Exodus narrative highlights the Torah’s concern with liberation from oppression, alongside the rejection of self-centered “freedoms” for the sake of serving the Divine. Heschel notes how peculiar of a gift that freedom and free will is – surely God’s existence would be much easier if humanity lacked this ability. Regarding humanity’s gift of freedom, Heschel writes “It is up to us to decide whether freedom is simply self-assertion, or the answer to the Divine Call.”
In Parashat Korach, Moses deals with his greatest challenge yet: a full-scale rebellion against his leadership, spearheaded by his cousin Korach. In a display, questioning Moses and Aaron’s leadership, Korach and his followers proclaim “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” It is important to juxtapose Korach’s rebellion to the conclusion of the previous parsha: the commandment of tzitzit, a physical reminder to reject our own physical urges in favor of observing God’s commandments. The tzitzit are a tangible representation of the nature of the freedom brought forth from the Exodus: the Israelites were not simply liberated from Egypt for the sake of freedom – rather, because “the LORD your God…brought you out of Egypt to be your God.”
What Korach’s rebellion fails to understand is the nature of Israel’s holiness. We can see clearly from his assertion that he believes Israel’s holiness is inherent, a given. Instead, what is notable about Israel is its capacity for holiness, a pathway to holiness. Korach feels entitled to his freedom, instead of manifesting his freedom to live a sacred life of service.
Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of action, rather than declarations. Korach declares his holiness – contrary to the central message of the Exodus: the children of Israel are to utilize their freedom to live in holy ways, eternally. It is as incumbent upon us today to answer that call as it was in the days of the Torah. Freedom, understood as liberation from systematic oppression, is certainly prioritized in the Torah – however, freedom to oppress or cause damages towards others is not tolerated.
The Korachs of our time chastise experts, activists, and good-faith leaders of being holier-than-thou and infringing on their freedoms by emphasizing the urgent need to avoid climate calamity through overhauling the food system to a sustainable, plant-based future. No one is “cancelling” hamburgers and the internal combustion engine – leaders are leading, guided by truth and powered by righteousness to save the present and future of the planet. A sustainable food system is our only path towards a bright future, for the Jewish people, for the State of Israel, and for the world. The noisy voices of lust and greed masquerading as freedom-fighters are indiscernible against the seismic vibrations of truth. Just as the Holy One caused the earth to swallow Korach and his rebels, may the Holy One cause the light of truth to shine upon the earth, causing a collective awakening to all in our day.